Silicon Valley v. The Liberal Arts

Freddie deBoer’s latest post is your weekend must-read:

Yet on the level of thinking of our Silicon Valley overlords, aspects of my cognitive abilities that are absolutely central to my educational success are taken to have literally no value at all. In educational research, perhaps the greatest danger lies in thinking “that which I cannot measure is not real.” The disruption fetishists have amplified this danger, now evincing the attitude “teaching that cannot be said to lead to the immediate acquisition of rote, mechanical skills has no value.” But absolutely every aspect of my educational journey – as a student, as a teacher, and as a researcher – demonstrates the folly of this approach to learning.

I’ve said it many times, though people never seem to think I’m serious: years studying literary analysis, now widely assumed to be a pointless and wasteful activity, have helped me immensely in acquiring the quantitative, monetizable skills that ed reformers say they want.

I applied to film school out of high school and spent a large fraction of my university math education reading screenplays and writing about movies. The coffin eventually closed on those aspirations, but my interest in narrative and storytelling has permeated every aspect of my teaching, research, and current work in education technology.

Freddie deBoer’s argument, both as I read it and experience it, isn’t that a liberal arts education makes a productive life in STEM whole. It’s that a liberal arts education makes a productive life in STEM possible.

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I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for sharing Freddie’s post. He’s bang on.

    In my “two-timing” role of instructional coach and classroom teacher, my job is to spread the message from the Ministry of Education while also teaching a class of students for a portion of the day. I am constantly dealing with a struggle between data (specifically standardized testing) and using my professional judgement to accurately assess student learning.

    I am grateful that the Ontario Ministry of Education gives teachers a boat-load of autonomy compared to the U.S. system, but the messaging always has a piece around data. Here, we promote the triangulation of data (observations, conversations and student product), but only one of those three seem to impact many of the decisions made to move us forward at the provincial level.

    Although I think the Ontario system is way ahead of the curve, until we start using the triangulation of data to impact decisions, we will continue to put too much focus on standardized testing.

  2. Hey Dan –

    That reading has me thinking about assessment for some reason. I’ve drank the SBG punch, and have been working to find the best way to incorporate it into my classroom instruction. For the most part I think it has improved my instruction and made me a more reflective professional. However, I do worry sometimes that as I focus in on assessing the standards that I am smart enough to put into words, I run the risk of spending less time on these intangibles that deBoer talks about. I think I’m getting better at it, but at times I think my focus on standards and re-assessing over them has drained a little bit of the life out of the room. Also, if these things are not measurable, do we give up entirely on having them a part of our assessment? Are these intangibles the reason that teachers, including myself, still feel like they want to grade participation in discussion and homework, in hopes that we in some way capture some of that intangible learning due to students effort?

    I guess I’m wondering if you’ve ever confronted this sentiment, and have any suggestions or thoughts on whether this IS a danger of SBG or not, and how to mitigate that…

  3. As my school (PK-12, independent, international, liberal arts) is in the midst of creating a vision and plan for learning with technology, I have been thinking a lot about the balance of digital literacies and the more traditional approaches to education. I have to say, the more I research, read and discuss, the more confused I become! Does the liberal arts approach advocated for in the deBoer article dictate the means of learning, wherein there is no space for digital tools or literacies because one only needs to have face-to-face discussions, pore over paper books, attend lectures, and create with physical materials to be ‘successful’ in the modern world? Is there no need for digital literacy? Or can we still achieve these goals of liberal arts education with the digital tools that students may also need to wield effectively to be successful in the modern world? I think there are extremes on both ends that we should avoid, but where is the balance?

  4. Chester Draws

    March 12, 2016 - 1:44 am -

    Is there no need for digital literacy?

    Let’s not kid ourselves that we can teach “digital literacy”.

    A bit of word processing and spreadsheet knowledge is useful as a life skill, but hardly makes one literate.

    Web pages in html and php. Using graphing, drawing and CAD programs. Database and systems management. All the different coding languages, scientific through to gaming. It’s a monstrous topic, and only a full time professional can hope to deal with all but a minute fraction.

    Lots of people somehow manage to be successful without much school taught “digital literacy”. Because it is a trade skill, like accounting or welding, something you learn on the job. At best you get a taste at school, to see if you like it.

    Let’s focus on teaching kids to be highly literate in the real meaning of the word and numerate. Those skills are more important, and don’t date.

    Time spent on humanities is not wasted, and is more useful than learning some trivial computer skill, that will be out of date soon enough anyway.

  5. This was a really valuable post. Imagine a school with no English, art, music…. all math and science. It would be fun for a week.

  6. Thanks, Chester, for your reply. If your definition of the humanities matches that of Stanford’s, “the study of how people process and document the human experience”, then by extension we should necessarily be spending time talking about computing, communication, and information technologies as part of the education experience. People are now processing and documenting their experiences in digital form. Even the past has been digitized. If we want our students to be able to study and have access to a greater depth and breadth of the human experience than one tiny school library can reasonably contain, why not dedicate time towards teaching how to research, analyze and apply information found online (some of which has already made many science and history books inaccurate). Why not take time to teach students how to process and create in the mode of our modern times instead of pretending they are “digital natives” and will automagically know how to wield these tools once they leave us (or that their employers won’t expect them to be equipped with basic tech skills)?

    Writing, reading, analysis, research, fine art, language, discourse (these blog comments, for example), religion, philosophy, culture – all of these human activities and achievements have gone digital. Personally, I learn so much every day reading blogs, researching online academic journals, engaging in discussions, and reflecting on that learning via the written word in situations like this where I have the opportunity to learn from a wider variety of experiences and opinions than I ever got in school. Why deny our students the same opportunity to engage with their world in productive, relevant, and appropriate ways while still gaining “real” literacy and numeracy skills?

  7. To this issue, Mark Slouka’s 2009 essay in Harper’s resonated with me, so much so that I still have it in my file:
    He wrote, “By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus the world is made safe for commerce, but not safe.”

  8. I’m so interested in these ideas! It really resonates with me–the ideas that the liberal arts education is being eclipsed by the relentless pursuit for STEM. What are humans without stories? We are wired to think about relationships between even scientific and mathematical principles from a literary perspective. Stories are what we connect with, what our memories are built of, how we communicate with each other. Of course studying literary analysis helps in any aspect of education. Yay for Liberal Arts!

  9. Harry O'Malley

    March 19, 2016 - 2:25 pm -

    I just read Fredrik deBoer’s article and was surprised at how little it had to offer.

    He is clearly very skilled at writing words that paint vivid mental pictures in reader’s minds and he has a knack for inducing awe. The iceberg thing was very cool, for instance. But these skills are just as useful in the communication of fiction, or for purposes of entertainment, as they are in the communication of truth. In this case, the article has very little in the way of content.

    The piece has many hallmarks of argument styles that people use when they don’t have a lot of evidence or any clear thinking, namely:

    1. Words that attempt to belittle groups of people, and induce anger and a feeling of superiority in readers toward a perceived common foe. Here are some examples:

    “…yet-another set of Silicon Valley types, demonstrating the existential hubris of their kind by assuming that the level of thinking that brought you Candy Crush Saga can permanently alter education,…”

    “Of course, in their culture, that kind of hubris is considered a mark of pride, rather than an embarrassment”

    “…the oceans of understanding that they fail to see out the windows of their Teslas as they speed around Mountain View and Cupertino”

    “…our Silicon Valley overlords…”

    2. Exaggerated, superlative thinking. Here are some examples:

    “But *absolutely every aspect* of my educational journey – as a student, as a teacher, and as a researcher – demonstrates the folly of this approach to learning”

    “…aspects of my cognitive abilities that are *absolutely central* to my educational success are taken to have literally *no value at all*.”

    “Rinse and repeat, now and *for forever*.”

    “We do not have instruments that measure this kind of learning and *we never will*.”

    3. Unshakeable confidence in statements in the face of little to no evidence for their truth. Here are some examples:

    “My ability to closely read a poem has strengthened my ability to acquire these skills, in a way that I cannot possibly prove but that I am entirely sure of.”

    “It deepened my mind in more ways than I can express.”

    “This understanding, which has been central to my development as an adult intelligence, would not factor into any assessment of my academic aptitude. We do not have instruments that measure this kind of learning…”

    The article uses over 2,000 words to say “software can’t perform all aspects of instruction”. I’m surprised it is being highlighted.

  10. As the resident Comp Lit major of Silicon Valley, I have to agree. :) The ability to read, write, speak, and analyze texts persuasively was the most important skill I possessed that others did not. It is easy to forget that even the greatest ideas cannot communicate themselves.

    After many years, I decided that the ability to *listen* is even rarer, and more powerful.

    – Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)